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Women Mind the Water Podcast Series: Colleen Flanigan, Mexico

As told by Colleen Flanigan
Cozumel, Mexico

Story Narrative:

A woman with long hair wears a black wet suit and prepares for a dive.

Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2022, featuring regional and international artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.

Colleen Flanigan describes herself as a socio-ecological artist. Her work is both functional and artistic. Colleen works at the intersection of art, science, technology, and the environment. Colleen has created metalwork in many forms including jewelry and puppets for motion pictures such as the stop-motion animation Coraline, a 2009 film directed by Henry Selick. Colleen designed and built a sculptural frame for coral. This work  promotes a healthy marine community, one that thrives in the presence of the coral growing on the frame. Her Living Sea Sculpture is on display in an underwater museum in Cozumel, Mexico. The video version of the podcast includes underwater footage of Colleen and her Living Sea Sculpture.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:01): Today on the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series, I'm speaking with Colleen Flanigan. Colleen describes herself as a socioecological artist. Her work is both functional and artistic. Skilled in metalwork, colleen designed and built a sculptural frame for coral. In doing so, she has promoted a marine community that thrives in the presence of healthy coral. The Women Mind the Water podcast series engages artists in conversation about their work and explores her connection with the ocean. Through their stories, Women Mind the Water hopes to inspire and encourage action to protect the ocean and her creatures. I am most pleased to welcome Colleen Flanigan to the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series podcast. This is going to be a fascinating discussion, one that explores art as a way to promote coral ecosystems.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:54): I encourage folks to watch the video version of this podcast because there will be underwater footage of Colleen and her living sea sculpture. Colleen works at the intersection of art, science, technology, and the environment. Her work is both functional and artistic. Colleen has created metal work in many forms, including jewelry and puppets for motion pictures such as the stop motion animation Coraline, a 2009 film directed by Henry Selick. Today we will focus on a metal frame she created to be a work of art as well as a functional support for living coral. Her living sea sculpture is on display in an underwater museum in Cozumel, Mexico. Welcome, Colleen.

Colleen Flanigan (01:41): Thank you.

Pam Ferris-Olson (01:43): Thank you for being here. I am looking forward to our conversation about your work, the life of coral, and your perspective on using art in the service of the environment. I think I would be correct in saying you are the first artist on this podcast whose art directly benefits the ocean and her creatures. Colleen, I've got so many questions because yours is a most unusual project. I think I'll begin by asking, when did you become interested in metal work?

Colleen Flanigan (02:15): I began actually making jewelry when I was 15. I think when I was 12 years old I wanted to be a jeweler, how you go through phases, and I remember wanting to do metal work very young. So, when I was 15 I went to a junior college and started to explore traditional soldering and fabrication skills.

Pam Ferris-Olson (02:38): So, I know a little about metal work. What properties do you look for in selecting a metal to work with?

Colleen Flanigan (02:45): With metal work, it's more like if you're looking to make jewelry with fine metals like silver or gold. There's that line of metal. But I was really drawn in my 20s when I was at Oregon College of Art and Craft. I was continuing my studies and I knew I wanted to move more sculpturally and larger, so I wanted to learn how to weld. So, then I started welding with steel. And I think it really depends. In the case of the projects for the reefs, they need to be conductive and strong for electrification for a very specific chemical process. So, I stick with steel currently for that and I'm looking for biomineralizing other types of biocompatible materials.

Pam Ferris-Olson (03:34): Wow, that's a mouthful. Biomineralizing materials. What does that mean?

Colleen Flanigan (03:40): Biomineralizing means that there will be some sort of property when the material is in the ocean that it actually has a little bit of a charge or conductivity of its own making, that it starts to precipitate the limestone minerals and calcium carbonate that exists in the ocean to get rigid. So, it goes from a more flexible material or a smaller diameter to a really fortified strong reef substrate.

Pam Ferris-Olson (04:06): So, you have to be more than a welder. You almost have to be a chemist.

Colleen Flanigan (04:10): Yes. Well, in metalsmithing what was fun is I used to do electroforming where I would take, for example, a cauliflower, like a real vegetable, paint it with an electro conducted paint, and then in this toxic sulfur acidic bath, I'm forgetting the exact chemicals, but it was basically plating copper onto the cauliflower. So, I ended up having this copper cauliflower. So, there was a lot of patinas and chemistry in metalsmithing. And now working in the ocean, I collaborate with a lot of material scientists as well so that we can start developing new innovative materials in a co-inventing.

Pam Ferris-Olson (04:50): Well, this is fascinating, but let's back up just a minute. Because I know little about metal work. What properties do you look for in selecting a metal?

Colleen Flanigan (04:59): Metal has the ability to be molten when you heat it up, to be flexible when you heat it to a certain degree. So, when I'm looking for, say, a sculpture that's large scale, I'm going to usually go for a steel or something that I can stick into a forge or I can heat with a torch and then get it bendable enough that I can bend it and then I can weld it. And so it's like, what do you want to make is the way I determine the properties. Copper's very soft for, say, hammering or forging. I mean, not forging. But when you take a flat sheet of copper and you anneal it, which means you heat it with a torch, you get it to a certain temperature, then you quench it the right way or you let it air cool, there's these very... As a metalsmith, you're always massaging metal with heat and then tempering it with air and that's how you control its properties that you need, if that makes sense.

Pam Ferris-Olson (05:57): Wow. When you talk about hitting metal after you put it in a forge, I get this idea, like the poem, "under the broad chestnut tree, the village smithy stands." Somebody really physical. Is it a lot of work? I mean, in terms of physical to do that?

Colleen Flanigan (06:17): So, blacksmithing and forge work, yes, it's very physical. And that's one of the things that drew me to it, is I really am a very physical person. So, I loved putting my long rods into the furnace. When I lived in Portland, Oregon, for six years I rented a shop where I had a jewelry section and a blacksmithing area. And then I would use those power hammers that you step on, those big old like don-don-don, and stick the metal in there while it's blowing red orange and that flattens it out or you twist it and then while it's red you can put it in a jig and bend it. And so I like that there's this very... It's like dancing or when you think of glass blowers too. It's tiny.

Pam Ferris-Olson (07:00): But you go from the fine motor skills to the big physical muscles. You are using all of your body basically.

Colleen Flanigan (07:08): Yes, very much.

Pam Ferris-Olson (07:10): So, which came first, the metalwork or the interest in diving?

Colleen Flanigan (07:16): I really remember the day while I was blacksmithing in Portland one day going, "I know I'm going to dive someday. I don't know. I just know I want to." Because I was raised near the ocean too, and I thought it would be... You just get a flash sometimes. And then shortly after I was in California at an Eco Wave Conference in 2003, listening to Wolf Hilbertz' talk about how you could weld structures with a low volt electrical current, precipitate minerals and basically plate minerals onto them, and then the corals and the organisms create a whole habitat. You can recover coral ecosystems. Or you can help. I can't say you recover. We have a lot of issues. But that's the moment where I was, "This is what I want to do with my years of metal work." So, the reason-

Pam Ferris-Olson (08:07): So, you took up diving specifically to work underwater?

Colleen Flanigan (08:12): Yes. Right after that I ran up to Wolf and I said, "Oh my God, I have to do this." It was that aha, like where you're shaking. I was wearing a ring at the time that was a cast silver ring that looked like little barnacles with fish in it that I had made. I had a lot of subconscious, I think, sea-ness in me. And then I realized this was tying all the work I did. I also used textiles a lot and I'm mixed media and I could see that always I took metal and then combined it with bright colors or plants or something that it felt like it was like a preparatory work for this transition.

Pam Ferris-Olson (08:48): Colleen, I can say without a doubt you're the only artist so far that I have talked to who took up diving in service of her art as opposed to as a hobby and then being inspired by being underwater they took up the art. That's lovely.

Colleen Flanigan (09:06): I probably would've been too scared. I really had to have a focus. Does that make sense?

Pam Ferris-Olson (09:11): Well-

Colleen Flanigan (09:11): Because then when I'm under there I'm welding. I'm always attaching corals. I'm cleaning. And through that process, I've gained my confidence and passion for the diving world other than [inaudible 00:09:23].

Pam Ferris-Olson (09:22): You weld underwater?

Colleen Flanigan (09:24): No, I welded on land, but then when we take it under we-

Pam Ferris-Olson (09:27): Okay, right. All right. So, how did you become interested in coral?

Colleen Flanigan (09:33): So, that really was that 2003 Eco Wave Conference, watching the intersectionality of everything I was working on and love to do. I didn't know that corals were dying at the time. I didn't understand. They weren't really on my radar. And so when I heard, that was the moment. I got that emotional where you're crying for the loss of this organism. And I felt a really emotional connection to the-

Pam Ferris-Olson (10:03): That was a very powerful presentation and speaker, I have to say. So, tell us a little bit about coral. What is coral and can it be found everywhere in the ocean?

Colleen Flanigan (10:15): So, coral is an animal that is basically, when you see a reef, you're seeing thousands, millions of little polyps, which are individual animals that have single cell algae called zooxanthellae living within them. So, they're an animal with a plant partner when we're talking about reef building corals specifically. And they're symbiotic. They build reefs through their mineralizing. So, you get plant animal mineral all in one living being, And the living reefs we see in the sea today are for the most part are roughly five to 10,000 years old. The ones that we see living. They are 2% of the sea floor maybe has corals. And when you think of the whole earth, less than 1% is actually where corals are living.

Pam Ferris-Olson (11:10): Okay. What is coral's function in the ocean ecosystem?

Colleen Flanigan (11:14): So, they are the most diverse marine ecosystem, and they are bringing shelter and food to 25% or so marine life. So, they're hugely important for just the balance of biodiversity. They are protecting shores from erosion and the huge storms. They are the first breakwater. They're cleaning water like a filtration system. And also they're, I mean, to me, they're the most beautiful artistic architects in the world. So, obviously they bring a lot of funding through tourism and that way of life, but it's seafood. Our food comes from there, our shore protection.

Pam Ferris-Olson (12:01): Okay. So, you mentioned something about climate change impacting coral. Would you be brief, but explain a little bit about that problem?

Colleen Flanigan (12:12): Sure. So, as we burn the fossil fuels continuously, continuously, that carbon dioxide that has no place to go gets sunk like a sink into the ocean. And that carbon dioxide's heating up the ocean as well as heating up the planet, the atmosphere. So, corals themselves are really sensitive to temperature. So, one degree Celsius per month, say, higher than their normal comfort zone will cause them to do what's called bleaching. And that's when they expel their symbiotic partner. They start to suffer from not having enough food and starving. And basically you'll see those dead patches of crumbly coral. They'll either die. They may recover if the temperature cools down some. But basically that seems to be one of the dominant threats to their survival. And it's really now or never. Everyone's trying to throw at the solution, how do we restore them? How do we bank their different diverse species to save for the future when the temperatures get better to bring them back? How do we produce more resilient species and garden?

Pam Ferris-Olson (13:25): What do you need to learn before you construct a sculpture that's not only going to be hospitable to coral but survive underwater?

Colleen Flanigan (13:36): The easiest part for me was designing the structure and welding the structure. Those are I realized things that were in my practical abilities. But the challenge is you're now dealing with permitting. You're dealing with the government, with private business, with maintenance, infrastructure for electricity underwater. We also have a live streaming underwater camera now thanks to the Zoe Anderson Memorial Fund. So, I guess I had to learn all these new relational skills. I'm not sure if that's the question you're asking. I'm just saying that is something that I learned had to become developed from being an artist. And I basically spent over five years, once I made the project and learned, "Oh wow, I need to learn Spanish really well to fully understand the culture, the nonprofits, the governments, the business there." You can re-ask me maybe that question so I'm more pointed in my response.

Pam Ferris-Olson (14:34): Okay. Well, I've got two things that I need to ask you. One of which is, you said there's an electrical current. Is that run constantly underwater or was that a one-time thing?

Colleen Flanigan (14:46): So, right now we have a low volt current running constantly on the structure. The structure itself is steel with a low volt current, and then there's a titanium mesh nearby that's the positive charge. For people who are familiar with cathodic protection to keep boats from resting, things like that, it's basically that process but with a slightly higher current so that the minerals build up onto the structure.

Pam Ferris-Olson (15:14): So, how do you get electricity down to the current generator?

Colleen Flanigan (15:22): We have a cable plugged in to a dive shop called Sand Dollar Sports, and it runs the 60 meters. It's about the same wattage or electricity usage as a laptop. So, it's not using a lot. But we run it through a cable and we have the cable through a PVC tube and then attach it to the two things, and then you plug it in and then you get little bubbles and hydrogen fizz and you have a chemical reaction.

Pam Ferris-Olson (15:53): I love the way you explain that. So, you said it's in an underwater museum in Cozumel. What exactly is an underwater museum and is the one in Cozumel unique or are there more?

Colleen Flanigan (16:08): I just want to share that it's a museum and it's also a lab because there's these reef falls, there's these platforms. It's becoming more of a coral restoration laboratory mixed use museum in a way. So, there are more in the world where people might focus on taking divers to see attractions, keeping them away from the reef so the reefs can get healthy. So, there's something exciting to see. But I was really mostly focused on coral restoration first. And then the art side is that I don't think we should have ugly things in the water and moving towards aesthetics as being critical.

Pam Ferris-Olson (16:54): So, take us on a virtual tour to your living sea sculpture and describe what we'd see. Take our hands and we're diving underwater and what is it that we're going to go down and see?

Colleen Flanigan (17:07): So, you're going to walk in from the shore at the dive shop and you just go underwater and it's a few feet. You're first going to see these reef balls on the side, which are another form of reef restoration. Lots of fish like to hide out in them during the day. Then you'll keep swimming along and soon you'll see there's sand, there's rocks, there's anemones. You'll see a lot of jacks and tangs and different local fish feces. It's an area that was hit really hard by hurricanes. So, it's exciting when we see like, "Oh, here's this coral, here's this coral coming back." And then you get to Zoe and off in the distance you see a DNA double helical structure. That's what Zoe is inspired by, DNA. And it's this, I don't know, it's like double DNA helix with corals populating it. And when you get really close, you see all the baby fish. You see the little crabs. You see that there's octopus growing now. After six years in the water, it's become like a true micro ecosystem.

Pam Ferris-Olson (18:14):  You keep mentioning Zoe. Is that the name of the museum?

Colleen Flanigan (18:18): Sorry. So, the museum is called Musubo, which means the Museum of the Golden Diver. Like I said, it's a museum, but I feel like they're not, other than adding Jacques Cousteau's bust, Sylvia Earl's bust, and Ramon Bravo, the focus on it being art museum is less where the energy has been put. And Zoe. Zoe is named Zoe in memory of Zoe Anderson, who tragically died of a carbon monoxide leak in her home. And her name means life and the Family Foundation funded adding the camera and installing and a lot of the help with some of the maintenance. So, that's why it's named Zoe, as a memorial. It's a living memorial.

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:08): So, are you working on any new marine projects?

Colleen Flanigan (19:12): I am. My current project I'm working on is inventing or innovating new ways to do reefs that will be lightweight and transportable, but then through the electrolysis get rigid. So, I'm a pioneering exploration phase right now.

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:32): That's really exciting. I mean, where you started and what you've learned and how you're evolving along with the work is very inspiring. So, before we have to conclude, I'd like to know how our listeners might adapt their concerns for the ocean and specifically, maybe specifically coral reefs, into action to make a positive difference.

Colleen Flanigan (20:02): Sunscreens that are reef safe or wearing protective clothing because those are toxic. Being aware of how fragile and sensitive coral is right now with the nutrients flowing in from the pollution and runoff from roads, from fertilizers, from our own drains in the house. Don't put chemicals down the drains. All of those things go into the sea, kill the corals, cause algaes to grow that are deadly for them and smother them.

Pam Ferris-Olson (20:28): I promised people this was going to be a fascinating conversation and I really think it has been wonderful, and I'm really grateful that you gave your time to talk to me. It has been inspiring to meet an artist who creates work with the intention of directly making a positive difference in the marine environment. I'd like to remind listeners that I have been speaking with Colleen Flanigan for the Women Mind the Water podcast series. This series can be viewed on An audio only version of this podcast is available on the Women Mind the Water website, on iTunes, and other sites. Women Mind The Water is grateful to Jane Rice for the use of her song, Women of Water. All rights for the Women Mind the Water name and logo belong to Pam Ferris-Olson. This is Pam Ferris-Olson.

Asset ID: 2022.04.14
Themes: Metalwork, jewelry, craft, design, coral reefs, coral reef bleaching, sculpture, welding, chemistry, blacksmith, diving, mixed media, underwater museums, nutrients, innovation
Date recorded: July 19, 2022
Length of recording: 21:20 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
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